Language: Buddhist Views of Language

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LANGUAGE: BUDDHIST VIEWS OF LANGUAGE

Any tradition that seeks mystical silence becomes intensely involved with the question of the role of language in religion. Silence presupposes speech; concern with the former reflects a concern with the latter. Even a brief survey of Buddhism would reveal a number of important strands within its tradition that depend heavily, or focus primarily, on some concept of sacred language.

Doctrinal Background

Pre-Mahāyāna Buddhist literature tends to subsume all forms of discourse into the category of discursive thought. At this early stage there is already a tendency to identify language with "discursive or conceptual thought," and to identify the latter with erroneous knowledge. The Nikāyas and gamas suggestcertainly not as strongly as in Mahāyānathe ineffable character of the Buddhist religious goal. The Buddha is beyond the "paths of speech" (Suttanipāta 1076), he cannot be conceived in visual or auditory images (Theragāthā 469).

Buddhist scholastics, on the other hand, downplay the nonconceptual. For them, liberating wisdom (prajñā ) has discursive, as well as nondiscursive, dimensions. Still, their view of Buddhism unquestionably pictures the religion as a critique of conventional perceptions and descriptions of reality. The dharma theory of the Abhidharma can be interpreted as an attempt to establish a technical language of liberationa set of concepts that will replace the misconceptions inherent in the ways of speaking about the world. These reflections find expression in the Abhidharmic concept of prajñapti, as developed in particular in the Sautrāntika school. Prajñapti, or "conventional designation," is the term used to explain the role and function of conventional language in contrast to the language of truth (paramārtha ), which describes accurately the nature of reality as seen by the en-lightened.

Prajñapti is also the key link between Abhidharmic thought and the philosophy of the Mādhyamika school. In the latter school human experience of reality is seen as being of two kinds: conventional views and the perception of ultimate reality. Language is an important aspect of the former, and as such it is perceived as a tool for the construction of a mock reality. Yet language also serves to express, or point at, the nonlinguistic sphere, that is, at the nature of things.

The Sautrāntika logicians also sought to attack what they perceived as reification of language in the philosophy of their Hindu rivals. The extremes to which these Buddhist philosophers went in trying to show the deceptive nature of language are particularly obvious in their theory of apoha language as "exclusion." According to this theory, words do not correspond or refer to objects, for their meaning is the exclusion of whatever is not the object of reference. The word cow, for instance, means only "the absence of non-cow." Among Buddhist philosophers after the eighth century (e.g., Śāntirakita, Kamalaśīla, Ratnakīrti) several refinements and qualifications of this view became the standard theories of meaning. Application of these theories to the religious sphere, however, does not seem to have occurred to their formulators.

Nevertheless, it is difficult to imagine that doctrines of meaning and negation could remain unconnected to Buddhism as a religious practicethat is, as a type of apophatic mysticism. In the Sūtra literature the connection is established explicitly. For instance, the Lakāvatāra Sūtra sees the world of speech as the world of delusion, which is identical with the world of the disturbed and illusory mind. Accordingly, the Buddha is said to have abided in "the silence of the sage." He never spoke a word. The Vimalakīrtinirdeśa Sūtra likewise, while asserting that everything is language, claims that only silence can express ultimate reality.

It is impossible, however, to remain in the realm of pure silence yet claim to practice a religion in a religious community. The Buddhist must therefore find a doctrinal bridge that will reach out beyond the sphere of mystical silence. Two doctrines are selected for this purpose by the scriptural and scholastic traditions: the doctrines of conventional truth (savti) and "skillful means" (upāya ). These are in part a theoretical recognition of the fact that Buddhism as a living religion is seldom a practice of literal silence. The silence of the Buddha is manifested in his speech; his words take the form that is understood by his listeners. Language is therefore not necessarily false. It is not misleading under all circumstances, because it can be used "skillfully" as a "means" (upāya ). This is the ultimate statement on language made in texts such as the Lakāvatāra Sūtra and the Tathāgataguhya Sūtra.

Religious Practice

Concern with the sacred word and acceptance of language as a practical tool play a much more significant role in Buddhist religious life than does the philosophical understanding of Buddhist silence, although they are never understood as contradicting the apophatic doctrine.

The importance of language and "the word" in the general history of religions in India is well attested (e.g., the Hindu kirtan, the pan-Indian mantra, and the school of Mīmāsā). What is characteristic of Buddhism is its concern with a critique of language. This concern is often found mixed, paradoxically, with a strong sense of the importance of the invariant word, the holy manifested in utterance, silence embodied in words. There are, however, many instances in which the sacred word is just thatits immutable character endowing it with power to protect and redeem.

Typology of the word

One can speak of a typology of the sacred word in Buddhism as ranging from the canon of scriptures, through the book, the sacred phrase, the (single) sacred word, the sacred syllable, and the sacred sound or letter. The following are a few major examples of the use of sacred words in Buddhism.

The vow

Perhaps the most important of these beliefs are the Mahāyāna doctrines of the bodhisattva 's solemn utterance of a vow (praidhāna ), to follow the path of buddhahood, and the ritual formulation of the vow and the precepts (savara-grahaa ). The vow is a kind of "act of truth," in which the will of an extraordinarily virtuous human being cooperates with the power of truth inherent in any statement of fact.

The book

Even in the sober Theravāda there is a strong sense of the authority of scriptural pronouncement as the ipsissima verba of Gautama the Buddha. As such, the sacred text is sacred regardless of the devotee's capacity to understand the conceptual content of the text. Concrete manifestations in ritual of this Buddhist reverence for the sacred wordincluding the literal text and the material bookare also well attested in Mahāyāna traditions. For example, the "perfection of wisdom" (prajñāpāramitā ) stands not only for the "highest experience" of absolute nonduality, but also represents the expression of this experience in words. The words themselves, and even the material "book" in which the words are preserved, embody the prajñāpāramitā, they are the prajñāpāramitā. Thus, scripture, as the "embodiment" of the Buddha as Dharma, becomes a living relic of the Buddha, so that every place where the text is made known becomes a sacred location, a reliquary, as it were (Vajracchedikā 12.15c; Aasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā 3.57). The preservation of the sacred word, therefore, is tantamount to the preservation of the Buddha's own being.

The ritual recitation of the scriptures as a source of merit is a common practice throughout Buddhist Asia. This practice can extend from the actual study and expounding of the Sūtra as doctrinal discourse to the cult of the collection of scriptures (cult of the Tripiaka), from the study of extensive collections of texts to the symbolic repetition of the text by copying it, or merely by turning a revolving bookcase containing the whole canon of scriptures or a praying wheel with copies of a short incantation. The enshrinement of textsa common practice in Tibetan Buddhismis not qualitatively different from the acceptance of a single fragment of text as an embodiment of the Dharma.

Incantation

The concept of words as summary or embodiment of the sacred has its most extreme manifestation in the symbolization of the Dharma in short segments of speech that are either fragments of natural expressions (the title of sūtras, the Prajñāpāramitā in a Single Syllable ), or strings of phonemes with little or no signification in the natural language (mantra, dhāraī ). These texts are also regarded as a condensation of the sacred power of the enlightened, and can be protective formulas as well as instruments of meditation. The latter function is reserved primarily, although not exclusively, for the mantra.

The use of sacred texts or fragments of sacred speech (e.g., paritta and dhāraī ) as incantations to guard off evil or eliminate negative influences or as propitiatory formulas plays an important role in both popular and "great tradition" Buddhist practice. A mysterious Dhāraī Piaka seems to have formed part of the canon of the Dharmaguptaka Buddhists in Andhra (in Southeast India), and may have been the repository of many of these formulas, otherwise attested in inscriptions, in anthologies (e.g., Śāntideva's Śikāsa-muccaya ), and as part of sūtras (e.g., the dhāraī sections of the Saddharmapuarīka, chap. 21, and Lakāvatāra, chap. 9). In the same way that the book comes to stand for the source of Buddhahood, the dhāraī, as epitome of the wisdom and power of the Dharma, can be conceived as a protective deity. The word becomes personified power in the mythology of figures, for example, the "Five Protective Deities" (pañcarakā ).

Sectarian manifestations

The importance of these religious phenomena becomes even more obvious when one considers their central role in the development of some of the most successful sectarian traditions of Buddhist Asia. In all of the examples given below, a practice connected with the sacred word has become the characteristic doctrinal or practical axis of a distinct school.

Pure Land

Pure Land Buddhism, as a generalized religious ideal in India, epitomizes Buddhist doctrines of grace and the sacred word. The bodhisattva or the Buddha is the source of grace, the savior who can be reached by merely calling his name. The classical examples of this tradition are the chapters on the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara in the Gaa-vyūha Sūtra and the Saddharmapuarīka Sūtra.

The practice of the recitation of the name of Buddha Amitābha, on the other hand, is usually not separated from the traditions of faith and meditation, as found, for instance in the Sukhāvatīvyūha. The mythology behind the practice reveals that it can be conceived as something more than faith in the magical power of words. Amitābha, in a former existence as the bodhisattva Dharmākara, pronounced a solemn vow, the power of which is such that it can produce the effect (the goals sought by the vow) by the sheer power of the truth of the words uttered. This vow and its effects are embodied, and can be evoked or reached by another sacred wordthe name of Amitābha. The power is not in the name as such, but in the intention of the Buddha's former vows.

Nevertheless, a belief that the repetition of the names of Buddhas is intrinsically meritorious is amply attested. In China, the incantation of the name of Amitābha Buddha became an independent religious form. The most extreme example of the mechanical application of this practice is the custom of keeping accurate accounts of how many times one repeats the name of Amitābha. Whether one is attempting to visualize the Buddha or not is irrelevant; the merit accrues regardless of the state of mind or degree of spiritual advancement of the believer.

In the Pure Land traditions of Japan the repetition of the name of Amitābha (Jpn., Amida) is divorced from the doctrine of merit altogether. The invocation itself becomes the primary practice, the only access to Amida's saving grace. The simplicity of this practice (known as the Nembutsu) is such that many believers would even deny that it is a ritual of invocation. Rather, it is conceived as the simple enunciation of the formula "Namu Amida Butsu" (the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese phrase "Namo O [or A]mituofo," itself an attempt to reproduce the Sanskrit sentence: "Namo ʾmitābhāya buddhāyā"). This short phrase is considered equivalent to the "true name" of the Buddhathat is to say, the essence of the Buddha as Buddha.

Nichirenshū

Related to this faith in the power of the name is the Buddhist trust in the power of particular sūtras. The most successful development of this belief is the Japanese sect founded by Nichiren (12221282). For him, the title (daimoku) of the Lotus Sūtra recited in the formula "Namu Myōhō-renge-kyō " becomes the powerful source of all spiritual and material well-being. Nichiren himself is said to have inscribed the phrase on a scroll. This inscription is considered the primary object of veneration in the sect. It is conceivedfollowing Japanese esoteric traditionas a ma-ala.

Tantra

Perhaps the most obvious manifestation of concern with the sacred character of language within Buddhism is in the phenomena encompassed by the broad term Buddhist Tantra or Tantric Buddhism. In the Tantric tradition the sacred word is at the same time the embodiment of multiple dimensions of the holy. Tantric texts such as the Guhyasamāja Tantra develop homologies linking the Buddha's silence (the ineffable), his mind (the experience of meditation), his speech (the expression of his experience), and his power (apotropaic formulas).

The sacred formula (mantra ) or syllable (bīja ) serves both as a powerful tool of incantation and a vehicle for visualization. A sacred and esoteric language or code (sadhā-bhāā, sadhyā-bhāā ) is developed to convey the meaning of ritual symbolism as the embodiment of religious experience. The latter use of sacred language is perhaps an interpretive device that tends to reduce the sacred word to the experience of meditation. The reduction takes place by means of homologies similar to the ones at the heart of the mystical tradition of the Brāhmaas and the early Upaniads. Thus, the mantra conveys meaning primarily as a codea multivalued icon embodying a system of sacred identities.

Therefore, one can rightly speak of "the word as icon" in the Tantric tradition. In Tibet, for instance, the sacred word acquires a life of its own. The sacred mantra of the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara, "O mai padme hu," is inscribed on building walls, on rooftops, and on stones in the road. It is inserted in praying wheels, where the mere mechanical turning of the inscribed syllables is supposed to invoke the presence of the bodhisattva, and allow the devotee to gain access to his grace or visualize his image.

The Japanese Kūkai (774835), the founder of the esoteric tradition of Japanese Tantra, regarded all language as sacred, although he also adopted the philosophical critique of language. He regarded mantras as the primary form of the sacred (the "true word," shingon ), but at the same time he considered that all words, even syllables and letters, stood ultimately for the silent meditation of Vairocana Buddha. Words, but above all Sanskrit sounds, were the embodiment of the highest reality.

Zen

Chan or Zen Buddhism also represents an important manifestation of both a concern with language and a predilection for the development of specialized sacred languages. The Zen tradition is avowedly the Buddhism of Vimalakirti's silencea claim that is explicitly reinforced by the practice of silent meditation. However, the excesses of blank mental concentration have been criticized in the sect since its inception in the eighth century, and an important segment of the tradition also practices meditation on "words"kanna-zen. The use of the kōan (Chin., gongan ) or mondō as sacred text (even in ritual contexts) is well attested; the kōan collections became the sacred canon of the sect. Nevertheless, even as the tradition concedes the immutable character of the sacred utterance it emphasizes the critical function of the kōan as expression of the dialectic nature of the enlightenment experience. For the kōan is also regarded as the embodiment of the enlightenment experience of the great masters of the past and a test case for the aspirant to that experiencehence its name, "public (kung ) case or precedent (an )."

The general category of "sacred language," however, does not exhaust or explain the specific meanings of the sacred word in Pure Land, Tantra, and Zen. Each one has a particular context. They represent only polarities in a wide range of possibilities within the Buddhist tradition. The three types of sacred wordnembutsu, kōan, and mantra share a common element insofar as they represent forms of nonnatural linguistic expression, but the analogy ends there. On the one hand, the mantra and the dhāraī express or embody the enlightenment experience as the manifestation in sound of a nonlinguistic sphere. They usually convey sacred meaning with only a token or minimal regard for linguistic sense. The title of a sūtra or the name of a Buddha, on the other hand, are clearly exact names that correspond to well-formed names in the natural language. The Nembutsu may embody Amida's enlightenment and true nature, but only by way of the actual name found in the myth of Dharmākara. Last, the kōan also claims to contain the actual linguistic form of a sacred, yet natural utterance "attested" in the quasi-historical context of hagiography; unlike the title of a sūtra, however, it alludes explicitly to the mythic context, and unlike the calling on the name of a Buddha, it claims to preserve a segment of meaningful, albeit paradoxical discourse.

Interpretive Frameworks

Among the religious traditions, explicit discussion of the nature of language occurs mainly within the Tantra, which in Tibetan and late Indian Buddhism constitutes the practical branch of the eclectic philosophical schools. In conformity with its philosophical roots Tantrism falls back on two Mādhyamika principles that are no doubt the most important hermeneutic devices in Buddhist philosophythe concept of "two truths" and the concept of "explicit" and "implicit" meanings (nīta- and neya-artha ). As convention, language has a certain validity, but its claim to represent something more than convention or to depict reality are spurious. The experience of reality as such, or of things as they are "before language," is the experience of the highest goal, the ultimate meaning, or the most real object (paramārtha ). Although this experience lies beyond all linguistic procedures or operations, beyond all conceptualization, it is accessible only through some form of linguistic index. Thus, linguistic convention, while merely conventional and relative, is necessary for liberation as well as for everyday practical activities.

Furthermore, the rejection of linguistic convention and conceptual thought is seldom unconditional or unqualified. In some Buddhist traditions the conventional world is not to be rejected because it is convention. The linguistic realm is deceptive and false only when it claims to be something more than a conventional construct. Therefore, certain forms of linguistic conventioneveryday use of language and special sacred language tools or substitute linguistic conventionsare acceptable. This is especially clear in late Mādhyamika thought, where the realm of the conventional is further divided to distinguish a "true" conventional from a "false" conventional usage. For instance, the Indian philosopher Kamalaśīla (fl. eighth century) regards the logic of everyday transactions as true in a certain manner of speaking. It is in fact the only logic possible, and discourse about the absolute only serves to clear away metaphysical language games. Thus, even the ultimate reality of emptiness is subject to a critique that corrects its apparent isolation from the world. Conventional and religious discourse alike may be illusions, but so is talk about the silence of emptiness. This is the theoretical context in which religious practices such as Tantra see themselves as a means to a practical and effective resolution of the tension between absolute and relative, silence and speech, liberating knowledge (prajñā ) and skillful application of liberating means (upāya ).

See Also

Amitābha; Buddhism, Schools of, article on Tantric Ritual Schools of Buddhism; Buddhist Books and Texts, article on Exegesis and Hermeneutics; Chan; Jingtu; Jōdo Shinshū; Jōdoshū; Kamalaśīla; Mantra; Mīmāsā; Nianfo; Nichirenshū; O; Prajñā; Śāntarakita; Sautrāntika; Shingonshū; Tantrism, overview article; Upāya; Zen.

Bibliography

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Bhattacharyya, Benoytosh. An Introduction to Buddhist Esotericism (1932). Reprint, Varanasi, 1964. A work of uneven quality, but still indispensable. The reprint edition contains a new preface by the author, but chapter 7, "The Mantras," is unfortunately too short.

Blacker, Carmen. "Methods of Yoga in Japanese Buddhism." In Comparative Religion: The Charles Strong Trust Lectures, 19611970, edited by John Bowman, pp. 8298. Leiden, 1972. An accessible, yet scholarly comparison of the practice of the kōan method of Rinzai Zen, and the mantra s of Shingon Buddhism.

Dasgupta, Shashibhusan. An Introduction to Tantric Buddhism (1958). Reprint, Berkeley, Calif., 1974. The reprint edition of this work contains a foreword by H. V. Guenther, in which he points to some of the book's shortcomings. Like Bhattacharyya, this work is still one of the standard surveys, in spite of its problems.

Hakeda, Yoshito S., trans. Kūkai: Major Works. New York, 1972. A study of Kūkai, and a translation of some of his works. Includes his most important work on the meaning of language and the sacred word, the Shōji jissō gi.

Hamlin, Edward. "Discourse in the Lakāvatāra-Sutra." Journal of Indian Philosophy 11 (September 1983): 267313. An original interpretation of the sūtra's view of language as upāya.

Hopkins, Jeffrey, ed. and trans. "The Great Exposition of the Secret Mantra." Hopkins's translation of Tso-kha-pa's classical treatise on the Tantric path, Sags rim chen po, was published in two volumes under two different titles: Tantra in Tibet: The Great Exposition of the Secret Mantra, Wisdom of Tibet Series, no. 3 (London, 1977), and The Yoga of Tibet: The Great Exposition of the Secret Mantra, 2 and 3, Wisdom of Tibet Series, no. 4 (London, 1981).

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Ñāananda, Bhikkhu. Concept and Reality in Early Buddhist Thought. Kandy, 1971. An imaginative interpretation of the Buddhist critique of conceptual thought in the Pali tradition.

Padoux, André. Recherches sur la symbolique et l'énergie de la parole dans certains textes tantriques. Paris, 1963. A general discussion of sacred language in Hindu Tantra. Many of the author's interpretations could apply to Buddhist Tantra.

Saunders, E. Dale. "Some Tantric Techniques." In Studies in Esoteric Buddhism and Tantrism, pp. 167177. Koyasan, 1965. Surveys various Tantric ritual and meditation styles, including the use of mantra s in meditation.

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Waddell, L. Austine. "'Dharani,' or Indian Buddhist Protective Spells." Indian Antiquary 43 (1914): 3742, 4954. This essay contains translations of Tibetan dhāraī s. See also the same author's "The Dhāraī Cult in Buddhism, Its Origin, Deified Literature and Images," Ostasiatische Zeitschrift 1 (1912): 155195, which is dated, but remains the most complete attempt to establish a history of Buddhist dhāraī. Includes a discussion of the personified protective formulas (pañcarakā ).

Waldschmidt, Ernst. "Das Paritta: Eine magische Zeremonie der buddhistischen Priester auf Ceylon." Baessler-Archiv 17 (1934): 139150. Reprinted in Von Ceylon bis Turfan: Schriften zur Geschichte, Literatur, Religion und Kunst des indischen Kulturraumes von Ernst Waldschmidt (Göttingen, 1967), pp. 465478. Analysis of the use of parittā in Sri Lanka, and its sources in the Pali tradition.

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New Sources

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McPhail, M. L. Zen in the Art of Rhetoric: An Inquiry into Coherence. Albany, N.Y., 1996.

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Luis O. GÓmez (1987)

Revised Bibliography